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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Working With Florida Keys Citizens to Save Key Deer from Screwworm Outbreak

   A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. Photo by Kate Watts/USFWS

Peter Rea (down from Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa to help) and Ken Warren (of the South Florida Ecological Services Office) update us on the outbreak hitting an endangered species.

The fight at National Key Deer Refuge and other areas of the Florida Keys to save the endangered Key deer from the recent outbreak of a parasitic insect called screwworms continues.

To date, most of the more than 1,000 preventative treatment doses of the anti-parasitic Doramectin have been administered to healthy Key deer on Big Pine Key with the help of nearly 200 refuge volunteers.

But while 75 percent of the Key deer population lives on Big Pine and No Name Keys, herds are found in some of the more rural parts of the Keys. These backcountry deer are harder to locate than those in more urban environments, and partners have also been looking at techniques to administer preventative treatment to them.

As of this week, 15 individual medication stations, which were built in-house, have been strategically distributed by Service staff on Cudjoe, Sugarloaf and Big Pine Keys. The stations have a self-applicating roller system, four rollers on each side, which apply a topical anti-parasitic medication to the deer’s neck as it lowers its head to feed on limited amounts of sweet feed. Deer are enticed to the medication stations by sweet feed, which mainly consists of oats, various grains and cracked corn.

   Kate Watts and Erin Myers Fish and Wildlife veterinarians Kate Watts and Erin Myers stand near one of the Key deer medication stations they helped design and build. Photo by Kevin Lowry/USFWS

"We came up with the idea and design for the medication stations through research on the Internet regarding various sheep and cattle feeder designs and ideas from deer tick treatment feeders developed in Texas," says Service veterinarian Erin Myers. "We've seen deer using the feeders. We're still experimenting with the best way to measure and apply doses as well as paint markers to show which deer have been medicated."

These medication stations are along heavily used deer trails on remote sections of the refuge. "We are seeing fewer infested deer in neighborhoods and also in natural areas, as seen on trail cameras," says Kate Watts, another Service veterinarian. "Our volunteers have been critical in implementing the preventative treatment program on Big Pine Key. We're optimistic that the preventative treatments are working."

Myers adds, "The citizen volunteers have been invaluable. They've been assisting non-stop with administering oral doses both around their homes and in other areas far from their homes."

Dan Clark, Manager of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, based here, agrees, "This community values these iconic deer and is partnering with us to save them from this infestation. I'd also like to thank the nearly 40 Service employees who have deployed down here to work with our local staff in response to this screwworm outbreak. These medication stations are just one indication of how innovative and dedicated they've been throughout this situation."

   A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. USFWS trail cam photo

For safety, people are asked to please stay on designated refuge trails, keep pets on leashes and not approach medication station sites. "If folks have any pet concerns, they should contact their local veterinarian. Sites are checked daily to monitor activity of Key deer and to ensure other animals are not getting into the medication station sites," says Watts.

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